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Is It Now Bad to Stay at the Same Company for Too Long?

Last week, a former colleague mentioned that when applying for her new role, she was up against a candidate who had worked at their current role for seven years, which was considered a red flag. Rather than seeing the candidate’s seven-year tenure as the mark of a reliable, loyal employee, the employer viewed it as a sign of possible incompetence and lack of ambition.

The thinking here — that if a candidate is truly impressive, they would’ve been poached by now — is increasingly common in our modern economy, according to HR experts. And its prevalence marks a drastic change in how we think about and evaluate labor.

It used to be that working years (if not decades) at the same company was the norm, and proof of an employee’s value and talent. But in our current labor market — with millennials hopping from job to job at unprecedented rates, and the best chance at a raise being to change jobs entirely — staying at a company isn’t only outdated; it’s something that can hurt your career overall.

“It wasn’t so long ago that the IBM Company Man model, in which you expected to work at one company for life, was standard,” says Michael North, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, where he studies intergenerational differences in the workplace. “But millennials have grown up in a world with less economic stability than prior ones, so it makes sense that they don’t value job stability as much as older generations.”

Indeed, the company man model has gone the way of the employer-sponsored pension retirement plan. The median tenure at a job was 4.2 years as of January 2016, down from 4.6 years just two years earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But within that data is a stark generational divide. The median tenure for workers ages 55 to 64 (10.1 years) was more than three times the median tenure (2.8 years) for workers ages 25–34.

But the criteria by which companies evaluate candidates haven’t changed much, according to Tim Sackett, president of IT staffing firm HRU Technical Resources. “If you hadn’t moved up in seven years, you’re never going to, so you better leave,” Sackett says. “Once you hit eight years, hiring managers will believe you’re probably a lifer at that company. The most valuable candidates fall into that window of three to seven years of tenure at a position.”

That said, Sackett recognizes the fleeting nature of our knowledge economy, where industries and companies are constantly changing, and employment is similarly transient. Everyone has a different “organizational expiration date” that varies based on their position, culture and performance, he says. So the three-to-seven years “rule” is more of a rough guideline.

If you do, however, go with the trial-and-error approach, Sackett suggests you do so while you still have your youth, and try to get in at least a year at each job. “Try not to do quick changes back-to-back. It’s a definite red flag when you see a candidate working in a professional career with back-to-back one-year stints,” Sackett says. “Most organizations are slow to fire bad performers, and it takes them a year, on average, to fire them. So, if you keep leaving at one-year intervals, it’ll be assumed you’re a bad employee.”

In other words, the new Company Man is the guy who hangs around for 12 months, not 12 years.